Gem of the Desert: San Xavier del Bac Mission

Tucked away just outside of Tucson, Arizona is a little mission called San Xavier del Bac, which is the northernmost mission of a chain established by Father Eusebio Kino in the late 1600’s. This quaint, dignified church holds mass every day but afterward is open to the public, and we had the chance to venture inside.

Saint Francis Xavier lived from 1506-1552 and travelled all over the far east, learning new languages and cultures as a missionary in the Portuguese Empire and India. One of the first Jesuits, he was the first priest to venture into Japan, Borneo, and Sri Lanka. He was about to go into China when he died. He was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, and his body now resides in the Basilica of Born Jesus in Goa, where he did much of his work.

The San Xavier del Bac church was established in 1692, just 70 years after his canonization, but the mission itself wasn’t built until 1783-1797, employing local artisans who made the adobe walls from available materials like sand, lime, clay, rocks, wood, and even juice from the prickly pear. Later in its construction, sculptors and painters from Mexico who were trained in the classic European style were commissioned to add the amazing detail and color. Local artists added desert motifs like deer, rabbits, and cacti.

The east and west transepts and vestibule (center) feature stunning artwork.

The altarpiece features colored lacquers over gold and silver leaf to produce an interesting opalescent effect, and the vibrant colors used over 200 years ago are still visible in most of the church due to ongoing preservation efforts. Mission saints like St. Dominic and St. Joseph, along with St. Anthony, St. Ignatius, and St. Luke are represented in the statuary around the east and west transepts, while the vestibule features statues of St. Xavier, St. Mary, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Andrew, and St. Simon.

Outside the sanctuary, the mission has two large courtyards that feature a wide variety of desert plant life, including some cacti like the Santa Rita, a purple and pink prickly pear, that only grow at that specific altitude. Part of the mission includes a few rooms that house museum-quality artifacts, including bread irons, robes, and a giant psalter that was at least three feet tall and hand-lettered with perfect calligraphy. Part of the wall in one of the outside rooms has been preserved so that people can see what the original mission walls looked like as preservation progressed over the years.

Bread irons (left), psalter (center) and original masonry (right).

Outside the mission on little hill stands a cross that we walked around. Visible from the highway, the cross points the way to the mission, which is missing a dome (reference the featured image at the top of the article). Although work on the mission building occurred over a fourteen-year period, when the money ran out, all the workers were discharged. Not only is the church missing a dome and part of its outside facade, but paintings in the choir loft and baptistry were left unfinished as well.

Unfinished ceiling and choir loft areas.

Many patrons entered the church to pray as we wandered around admiring the amazing artwork of this beautiful mission. They knelt on simple wooden benches and pinned milagros, little metal icons, to the St. Xavier statue in hopes that he would answer their prayers. Others lit candles and placed them near the statuary in the transepts.

Our whispers seemed to interrupt the serene tranquility of the atmosphere as we toured the chancel with the scent of incense from the morning’s mass lingering in the air. I felt like a trespasser into a forgotten world as we viewed the awe-inspiring artwork in this hidden gem of the desert.

Photo Credits: Darcy Martineau

Photo By: Darcy Martineau